Commentary

Lineup switch not worth fallout ... yet

Moving Jeter back to 2-hole shouldn't be the play now, but time will make final call

Updated: March 18, 2011, 9:08 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ask Joe Girardi to describe his ideal leadoff hitter and he practically grabs a crayon and draws you a picture of Brett Gardner.

Look at the New York Yankees manager's lineup card for Thursday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays and it's Gardner's name that is at the top, not Derek Jeter's.

Look at the numbers the two players put up last season and look at the game each brings to the park at this respective phase of their careers and there really is only one logical, objective conclusion you can draw: That the lineup Girardi sent out Thursday at The George is the one he should be sending out at the Stadium on March 31 for the regular-season opener against Detroit.

But sometimes, making out a lineup has nothing to do with numbers, objectivity or logic.

And sometimes, making a radical change, no matter how many benefits it may bring, just isn't worth the trouble it will certainly bring with it, too.

That is why batting Gardner leadoff and Jeter second makes perfect sense for Thursday, and maybe for every night the two find themselves in the same lineup for the remaining 11 games of spring training, otherwise known as fantasy baseball.

But once the games become real, there's really no sense in upsetting the applecart, or the clubhouse.

Gardner -- young, speedy, energetic, a human on-base machine and a double waiting to happen on every at-bat -- may be the ideal leadoff hitter for 29 clubs in Major League Baseball.

But until circumstances absolutely necessitate it, he is not the right leadoff hitter for the club that plays in the Bronx.

"Obviously, you want a guy who gets on all the time and has the ability to score runs in a lot of different ways. That's the type of leadoff hitter that you want," was Girardi's answer to my question Thursday about his ideal leadoff hitter.

And obviously, he was describing Gardner, who in 2010 bested Jeter in on-base percentage, .383 to .340, and dwarfed him in stolen bases, 47 to 18. Despite batting ninth most of the time, Gardner wasn't far behind in runs scored, too, 97 to 111.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter and Brett Gardner
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesA lineup switch is fine for the spring, but don't expect a similar order to be used Opening Day.

And, as Girardi likes to point out, Gardner creates turmoil on the basepaths and on a pitcher's innards. "He puts pressure on a pitcher," Girardi said. "A lot of times, pressure leads to mistakes, and you get to the guys in the middle of the order and those mistakes become bigger mistakes."

He pointed out that with Gardner batting leadoff, and getting on base as often as he does, it creates more opportunites to bring the RBI guys to the plate -- Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez and Robby Cano -- than if he is batting ninth.

And about the lineup against the Rays, he said, "It's something we're trying because of what [Gardner] did last year."

Left unsaid, of course, is that it is also because of what Jeter did not.

But over the course of a ballgame, a leadoff hitter is actually guaranteed of leading off only once, in the first inning.

And since it is unthinkable that the Yankees would bat Jeter anywhere other than second -- do you really think Girardi is going to disrespect his captain the way his predecessor Joe Torre once disrespected his cleanup hitter and drop him to eighth or ninth in the order? -- the Gardner/Jeter dynamic would remain intact throughout the game.

So is it really worth the risk of bruising an important ego and possibly tampering with the chemistry of your clubhouse to have that dynamic exist with Gardner/Jeter as 1-2 instead of 9-1?

I think not.

Besides, the Yankees are very confident that Jeter, who last year fell to career-lows in batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.340), slugging percentage (.370) and OPS (.710) while hitting more ground balls than any other everyday player in baseball and rapping into a dispiriting 22 double plays, will bounce back this year thanks to adjustments made to his stance and swing by hitting coach Kevin Long.

And there is simply no getting around the fact that, as Girardi acknowledged before the game, certain players become identified with their spot in the batting order, sometimes even, to use his word, "attached" to it.

For more than 9,000 of his 10,000 career plate appearances, Derek Jeter has batted either first or second in the Yankees' batting order.

As Girardi said, "We signed Jeet to be a top-of-the-order hitter, to score runs and be a catalyst."

Jeter was not quite that last year, but until he proves he cannot be that catalyst again this year, he should not be asked to forfeit the spot that he has become associated with in the Yankees' lineup.

The fact is, at best, Jeter will provide the spark he used to provide at the top of the Yankees' order (I realize it has been 11 years ago now, but has any player ever changed the tenor of a game, and a World Series, the way Jeter did by hitting the first pitch of Game 4 in the 2000 Subway Series out of the ballpark?) and at worst, he will hurt you less hitting first than he might hitting second.

After all, if Jeter hasn't kicked his ground-ball habit, the Yankees might well see too many Gardner at-bats wasted and too many potential first-inning rallies killed by Jeter double plays. Yes, the possibility would still exist throughout the game if you bat them 9-1, but at least you don't start the game that way.

And if nothing else, after 14 stellar seasons and one clinker, Jeter deserves at least the benefit of the doubt, the chance to prove he's no longer suited to hitting at the top of the order before getting yanked for a promising player with just one full season to his credit.

Already, Girardi has laid the groundwork for a possible sea change in the batting order later in the season. He took great pains to point out how Gardner's speed could benefit Jeter more than hitting behind, say, the less-speedy Johnny Damon did because of Jeter's ability to hit through the hole into right.

"Jeet is at times almost like a left-handed pull hitter in a sense," Girardi said. "And when Gardy's on and takes a lead, it leaves a lot of spaces for Jeet to hit the ball through, which he's good at."

And in his praise of Gardner's style of play, it was not difficult to read between the lines and see what he believes the ideal batting order to be. "What is the value of getting him an extra 70-80 at bats a year?" Girardi mused. It seemed obvious he would like to find out.

But the truth is, the Yankees' lineup, with Jeter at the top, scored more runs than any in baseball last year. They still have the same volatile mix of high OBP guys and high SLG guys, or in other words, guys who can get on followed by guys who can drive them in. Girardi could probably pull pills out of a shaker bottle and come up with a lineup that will score a ton of runs.

So the question becomes not should Gardner bat first and Jeter second, but why should he?

At some point, it is going to happen, through the process of attrition and natural selection.

But now is not that point. This year is not that time. Not yet.

For the Yankees, shaking that tree simply is not going to be worth the fallout.

NOTES: The Yankees beat the Rays, 3-2, on Nick Swisher's first home run of the spring, a towering shot into the right field seats with Cano on base in the seventh. ... Phil Hughes allowed four hits and just two runs in six innings, but got hit hard in several innings, including a long home run by John Jaso leading off the third. Hughes walked one and struck out three, throwing 71 pitches, 47 for strikes. ... Alex Rodriguez blasted his fourth homer of the spring over the center field fence in the second inning. A-Rod's sizzling spring so far: Home runs in three straight games, at least one RBI in five straight, and at least one hit in all 11 games he has played. His spring average is .406. ... Joe Girardi reported Joba Chamberlain, sidelined with an oblique strain, came out of his game of catch OK and is likely to throw a bullpen this weekend. ... The new 1-2 tandem of Gardner and Jeter went 0-for-6 with five groundouts and a strikeout by Gardner. ... Sergio Mitre, also sidelined by an oblique strain, will pitch in Friday's game against the Blue Jays at Dunedin. A.J. Burnett will start. ... Rafael Soriano, who asked not to pitch Thursday night or Wednesday because of his reluctance to show anything to divisional rivals in spring training, threw one inning in a minor league game across the street. He was disappointed in his showing, in which he allowed a walk and a double. "I didn't feel right today," he said. "I don't know why. I didn't have command of my fastball and slider." Soriano, who seems to be calling the shots on his first spring training routine as a Yankee, said he will pitch in Sunday's game against the Phillies in Clearwater, then go back-to-back next week. "Then I will be ready to go," he said.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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